Contemporary Sociology
V. 27, no. 6 (Nov. 1998)


Howard Winant
Temple University

America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible; Race in Modern America, by Stephan Thernstrom and Abigail Thernstrom. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997. 704 pp. $32.50 cloth. ISBN 0-684-80933-8.

This is a long book, with no less than two subtitles and backed by tremendous hype. It is billed by the publisher as "the first major work on race and social policy since Myrdal...." There can be no doubt that its authors and their supporters hoped to produce a definitive statement. And though there is much to question here, there is certainly some truth too. The post-civil rights era U.S. is a very different society, racially speaking, from its predecessors of, say, the 1930s or the 1950s. The problem faced by any student of the evolving U.S. racial system is how to evaluate a complex situation in which recently reformed and democratized dynamics coexist with a weighty tradition of immiseration, mistrust, and injustice. Attentive scholarship demands, at a minimum, a nuanced interpretation. The work of highest quality goes beyond a quantitative balance sheet -- so much "better," so much "worse": the best work seeks to develop an explanation of how and why the present situation has come to be.

America in Black and White, for all its detail and length, fails the minimum test partially, and the highest quality test entirely. In assessing the current state of U.S. racial dynamics, the Thernstroms abjure nuance and balance for a celebratory "whitewash," so to speak.

Consider the book's title. Despite its grandeur, it contains misleading, or at least controversial, elements: Do the two racial categories "black and white" effectively characterize the U.S. racial universe? The contemporary U.S. racial panorama also includes Asian Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans; not to mention various racially ambiguous groups These groups get only an occasional mention from the Thernstroms.

Then there's the "one nation, indivisible" part. This is supposed to be a telling point, presumably upbraiding those who persist in asserting black demands long after Dr. King's dream has supposedly been achieved. Of course, the phrase also resonates with most readers' high school memories, which is an added plus for the authors. (How about putting "under God" in the title? There wouldn't be any 1st Amendment objections, would there?)

It shouldn't be necessary to point this out, but I'm afraid I must: historically the U.S. has hardly been "one nation" in racial terms. As a settler state with a slavocratic system, and then as a "herrenvolk democracy," the country has a formidable legacy of racial inequality and injustice. This legacy, the Thernstroms want us to believe, has now been overcome.

The book is organized in three sections. A historical section traces the pattern of black-white relationships from 1940 to 1968. This recounts the nation's journey from the horrors of Jim Crow through the successes of the Civil Rights Movement, to what the Thernstroms see as the derailing of all that progress with the rise of black power and the urban unrest of the mid- and later 1960s.

The next section takes a topical approach to the major racial issues of recent years. Revisiting analyses previously presented by Moynihan, the Edsalls, and W. J. Wilson, among others, they argue predictable positions: family instability is a leading cause of black poverty; it is logical that people are scared of crime, especially black crime, because black crime rates are higher than white ones; low black motivation, not employment discrimination, accounts for high black unemployment. "[Low income blacks]... need to learn basic literacy and good diction, and also how to dress appropriately, wake up to an alarm, arrive at work on time, and listen to direction and criticism once there" (256).

The Thernstroms devote the third section of their book to attacking affirmative action in all its forms. It is their particular bete noire, so to speak. They argue that after the 1970s, government attempts at social engineering, in such areas as school desegregation, voting rights, and university admissions, all had disastrous consequences.

A concluding chapter sums up the Thernstroms' message: though there is still progress to be made, the racial problems that remain are largely the effects of black unwillingness to take advantage of the new, post-civil rights atmosphere of egalitarianism; residual inequalities of course persist, but they are largely the unintended consequences of the "preferential treatment" programs and policies favored by "racial liberals."

The Thernstroms cite hundreds of attitude surveys and public opinion studies, almost all claiming that white views of blacks now tend toward benignity, and that black perceptions of continuing white hostility and fear are now outdated. Much survey research on racial attitudes, we know, is problematic, and they tend to ignore work that belies these studies, but even leaving that aside, the reader is still amazed at the amount of "spinning" the Thernstroms have to do to render their evidence even plausible, much less convincing.

Consider their treatment of residential segregation. Drawing on survey research that suggests that most blacks would prefer to live in neighborhoods that contain roughly equal numbers of blacks and whites, the Thernstroms insist that most residential segregation comes from black unwillingness to live in predominantly white areas: "The strong preference of blacks for living in neighborhoods that are at least half black constrains how much neighborhood integration can be achieved -- to a quite surprising extent" (229). Although they mention "white flight" and the existence of a "tipping point" (the neighborhood black white ratio which sparks white flight, nationally at about 8 percent), by emphasizing the changed data on attitudes (and by "spinning" intensively) they try energetically to downplay the persistence of housing discrimination. Racial "steering" by real estate agencies is no longer very significant, they claim: "For one thing, such conduct has been illegal since the passage of the 1968 Fair Housing Standards Act" (224). They do not mention the nonexistent enforcement of this law, however. How about data from "audits" that test housing discrimination? Such tests produce "figures [that] do not seem high enough to support the claim that patterns of exclusion are the norm..." (225). End of problem. "Redlining" by banks and insurance companies goes unmentioned. The federal government's role in perpetuating residential segregation, through its credit, housing, taxation, and transportation policies, receives no attention. And whites come across as largely more tolerant of integration than blacks. End result: a general rationalization for the ongoing apartheid that shapes our social space and structures institutions of every sort, from schools to the general electorate, from popular media to labor markets.

The Thernstroms take up a wide variety of issues, only to argue relentlessly that all is essentially well. They claim that policing practices do not overly target black men; rather, black men need more policing. They think that electoral processes do not particularly encourage the use of racial subtexts and "code words" (does the name Willie Horton ring a bell?); rather, fear of crime is a legitimate political issue, and anyway it was Al Gore who first brought up Horton in 1988.

But enough of this. Because I want to address the overall meaning of the book, I will leave to its many other reviewers the task of detailed refutation, though I could cite Thernstromian sophisms, crackpot realisms, and sophisticated misinterpretations for pages on end.

America in Black and White is remarkably partisan. This dramatically impedes its scholarship, leading to selective use of evidence and excessive "spinning." For example, the Thernstroms want to harness Dr. King to their purposes, but this requires a sanitized, "whitened" King. The King who supported compensatory, anti racist programs (and even "quotas"), the King who denounced white apathy about, and collusion with, discrimination, the King who embraced social democratic politics, does not appear in these pages.

The book's partisanship also results in an uncritical adoption of what we may call an assimilationist perspective. The Thernstroms argue throughout that the chief obstacles to the achievement of King's "dream" are blacks: notably those who accept particularist and group-oriented conceptions of black identity and interests. They do not seriously consider why white prejudice and discrimination, amply documented by, say, Bobo, Farley, or Feagin, persists. The fact that many whites admit to discriminating in making employment or housing decisions does not cross their radar screen. They don't think blacks should harp on such points; better to tug on those bootstraps and get with the program.

If the Thernstroms have no understanding of the vast resentment and pessimism that black people experience in their dealings with white America, if they are unable to see why blacks would consider themselves a "community," much less a "people," if they unquestioningly orient their work through a sort of politicized "Anglo conformity," maybe it's because this book is thoroughly polemical in its purpose, and only cloaked in the disguise of dispassionate scholarship.

The Thernstroms don't even attempt to explain how and why race became so fundamental in U.S. society. Racial inequality didn't develop accidentally, after all. It was laboriously constructed because it served certain interests and conformed to a formidable cultural system. Is that all over now? Are there no groups that benefit from discrimination, from the concentration of unemployment and poverty among blacks (and other racially-defined minorities)? Have the cultural components of white supremacy been transcended?

Certainly Myrdal, for all his flaws, did not neglect such themes as cui bono, etc. He was at least a seriously engaged researcher. That the Thernstroms attempt to don his mantle is really rather scandalous.